Letters to the Editor

Belleville should embrace community policing

Eric Rhein
Eric Rhein

Instead of the motto, “Protect & Serve,” perhaps the motto of the Belleville Police Department should be, “Ticket & Fine,” a way of doing business that largely neither protects nor serves. This method of policing and fining recently cost Jennings, Missouri a $4.7 million civil rights class action payout.

While there are many fine officers in the B.P.D., including the Chief, scarce resources (made scarcer by the massive expenditure for a shiny new police building, a building that protects no one) are utilized by high profile $100,000 SUV patrols along Main Street, which only give the appearance of citizens being protected.

In light of the recent armed robbery of the west end Shop ‘N Save, and the back alley murder of a young man at 7600 West Main, a change of policy and mind set is in order. Belleville has nothing to lose by trying something else.

I write not just as a lifelong resident, but as someone who has studied policing issues since I was 18, in WIU’s Law Enforcement Administration Department, being taught by ex-Belleville FBI Field Office Special Agent Ed Carpenter, and I write as a former career felony prosecutor in St. Clair County.

When Brendan Kelly took over as my boss in the State’s Attorney’s Office, he met with the entire staff and made it clear: in the criminal justice system there are “sheep” and there are “wolves.”

The same common sense philosophy holds true for how good and courageous police officers should view citizens they encounter on the street: make friends with the vast majority of people who never commit or never will commit a violent crime, give them a warning ticket only for non-serious traffic violations, so maybe down the road these same people will help to prevent a crime, catch drug dealers in the act, or provide information on the truly vicious and violent among us.

The best cop I have ever known, former state cop and former U. S. Marshall Terry Delaney, lectured in the SIUE class I taught about how he has made life long contacts in the East St. Louis community and how those people tell him things, things in confidence, information he used to make case after case against hard core criminals.

So what can Belleville P. D. do to try something different, something that costs very little money, while increasing the changes those peace officers can prevent crime and catch criminals?

Abandon the largely discredited “Broken Windows” theory of policing, a theory which calls for police to issue every conceivable ticket, and a policy that breeds disrespect for laws that DO matter. Embrace true community policing; study its success in other mid-sized cities and get some officers out of those luxury police trucks (those SUV’s separate officers from the citizens they are supposed to protect) and get them walking the beat, or on bicycles in decent weather, or on horseback. Use those SUV’s to patrol actual neighborhoods, not just patrolling the main roads, with a higher presence at likely armed robbery targets.

Use real undercover vehicles for patrols of high crime areas, not vehicles that are obviously police cars with “MP” (“Municipal Police”) license plates or antenna. And those undercover officers should blend into the neighborhoods they are patrolling.

The days of trained and commissioned and well educated officers as glorified meter maids handing out tickets to “Sheep” should end.

And if these suggestions are followed and after a couple of years they haven’t had a positive impact, the B. P. D. should go back to “same ol’, same ol.” What do Bellevillians have to lose? Maybe our city, if all we have is the status quo.

A few years ago, Chief Bill Clay said publicly that Belleville was on the edge. We need more candors like that from our officials. But talking about the problems at Council meetings is not enough, and is not acceptable any longer.

Eric Rhein is a civil rights attorney in Belleville, worked in the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office for 24 years, and taught in the Criminal Justice Studies Department for nine years at SIUE.